The economic consequences of cancelling the Dane County Fair in response to the spread of coronavirus will be felt widely by vendors and entertainers, but the effects may take the greatest toll on county youth.
The Dane County Fair, originally scheduled for July 16-19, was canceled due to the novel coronavirus, according to a May 13 news release from the Dane County Fair Association, Inc. Held each year at the Alliant Energy Center grounds, the area has since been utilized as a COVID-19 testing site for the county.
The children and teenagers who are members of 4-H clubs have lost one of their top venues to earn profit and prestige for projects they’ve been working on throughout the year.
“The hardest part to me is the kids who have been raising livestock – sheep, cattle, swine – who don’t have opportunity now to show or sell that animal,” said Trina Pauli, organizational leader for the Paoli 4-H Fireballs. “They’re going to have to be more inquisitive and find a different way to get out into the community to market their livestock to recoup some of the money.”
Michelle Sarbacker, organizational leader for the Mudsliders 4-H Club, said some families were not expecting to have to care for the animals after the fair. The fair is considered a terminal show for animal projects like swine and steer, where youth exhibitors have their animals auctioned off after showing them.
“It’s a huge investment now,” she said. “Their families were feeding these animals thinking it was only until July and then they’d sell them, but now that’s not happening.”
Sarbacker said beyond the monetary investment in the livestock, 4-H members have invested energy – washing the animals twice a day, walking them, and spending a lot of time with them since January.
Although Pauli said even if the fair had gone ahead as planned, bids for livestock may have been down this year due to the state of the economy.
“A lot of businesses may not have been in the same position to buy,” she said. “This year would have taken more ingenuity to sell.”
Sarbacker said that for her kids, the fair was much more than just a place to show their animals.
“From a farm family perspective, fair is a little bit like a vacation. The kids see all their friends they see every year. It’s a special time. Most farm kids don’t get a lot of socialization necessarily – the fair is a way to get away,” she said.
Pauli said she is helping Fireballs members through the emotions of missing out on the fair, but once those emotions wear off, she’s helping the kids focus on what they can do next.
“I am telling the kids, ‘keep working on projects as hard as you were,’ in case we can get back together again,” she said. “Don’t stop just because there’s not a fair. 4-H is still part of your life, and maybe next year you’ll have twice as many projects to show off.”
Pauli said the Fireballs are going to find alternative ways kids can share their work, particularly the non-animal small projects such as writing, arts and crafts. She said a mini fair just for Fireballs club members may happen later this year.
Sarbacker said the Mudsliders are also considering how and when to gather again, just to spend time together.
“We have talked about having a socially distanced bonfire to get together and chat and share sadness or joys together, but it’s hard to know what is safe and when is safe,” she said.
Both the Fireballs and Mudsliders have been holding monthly meetings through Zoom. Recently, two employees from the Dane County Extension Office provided a virtual lesson in sheep raising, including what equipment is needed.
Sarbacker said for two members of the Mudsliders, this would have been their final year at the fair. Although the Dane County Fair Board has discussed a rule change allowing for such members to return to present at the fair after their first year of college, Sarbacker is not sure if that’s practical for some of the members who were set to age out this year as 19 year olds, as some will have turned their attention to internships or summer jobs.
“A lot of kids have worked their whole 4-H careers, which spans from kindergarten to first year of college,” she said. “Knowing it was going to be their last year and to not get that is yet another disappointment.”
No matter what happens next, 4-H families will find a way to be as creative as the projects they were working on for the Dane County Fair, said Fireballs member Vicki Sarbacker, who has seven grandchildren in the club.
“There is a lot of disappointment with having the fair cancelled, but we are thinking of ways to still experience the fair at home,” she said. “My grandchildren show dairy so they are planning a family fair at our farm. The adults will be the judges. We are talking about our favorite fair food that we can make right here at home. We will make the best of it.”